An elderly Sheffield woman who escaped the Nazis in the nick of time has urged the city to support the modern day refugees who come here.
Retired teacher Sue Pearson, aged 90, is one of the oldest survivors of the ‘Kindertransport’, a rescue operation which helped thousands of children flee Europe in the late 1930s.
On Monday she spoke to a meeting at Sheffield’s Crucible theatre held to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) alongside fellow Kindertransport survivor, refugee activist and Labour peer Alf Dubs, and current refugee Pride Mbi Agbor.
She said after coming to the UK aged 11, she and many other refugees like her didn’t speak much about their experiences, preferring simply to try to fit in as best they could.
However, an exhibition about tragic Dutch girl Anne Frank which came to Sheffield around 40 years ago changed all that for many of those who escaped.
She said: “That was the first time that people like myself had talked about what had happened. Refugees got on with their lives and developed local accents but the exhibition stirred something in us.
“Afterwards I was asked to visit schools to tell my story. I realised even then that children needed to start to think about what happened when hatred against a particular group was stirred up.”
Sue talked to the rapt audience about her experiences in Prague before the war of hearing about what was happening to Jews in Germany and Austria.
“I remember thinking how can this happen in Germany - a country with all that art and music,” she said.
“What is it that can persuade us that because someone is different than ourselves they are not worth very much?
“That is why I believe it needs to start with the young by getting them to talk to each other. By getting them to love each other.”
At the age of 90 Sue still tells children about her life story when she can, and was part of a group which recently petitioned Sheffield city council to take in more child refugees.
“When we came in 1938 and 39, Britain found 10,000 foster places in 10 months,” she said.
“We were trying to gently persuade Sheffield Council to take more. We have got an ethnically mixed city - beautifully so - and I think we benefit from that.
“If you have a spare bedroom and a big heart, it is something you might like to think about.”
Also addressing the meeting was Alf Dubs, who himself was rescued by the Kindertransport, went on to become an MP and now sits as a member of the House of Lords.
He had never met Sue and the two survivors shared a warm embrace 80 years after they both escaped Nazi Europe at the last possible moment.
He said: “I think there is a responsibility on all councils in Britain to take more of these child refugees who are in a desperate situation.
“I would like Britain to commit to bringing 10,000 child refugees over the next 10 years - that is only three per local authority each year.
“Local authority finances are difficult and the Government need to do more to help. But we have got to have the support of the public.”
Lord Dubs said his contribution to national politics and Sue’s local activism showed what could happen if child refugees were given a chance in a new country.
“Those who are coming now want to contribute to British public life and I think we can become a better country because of it,” he added.
It is believed Sheffield - which was the first ‘City of Sanctuary’ anywhere in the UK - has so far taken 40 child refugees under the different active schemes, although data is not currently available on how many of these have been unaccompanied youngsters.
And Sheffield Councillor Jim Steinke, cabinet member for neighbourhoods and community safety, revealed in October that the city had this year welcomed 150 refugees - both individuals and families - from countries all around the world.
The Crucible event had been organised to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, with Sheffield’s Amnesty International group had arranged a reading of the UDHR’s text outside the Town Hall.
Sheffield Amnesty International’s Alex Jagger said: “From a Sheffield point of view, we have got a very long history of taking refugees from Belgium in the First World War all the way up to people from Myanmar or Burma today.
“Sheffield has been doing this for years and we should be proud of that. Asylum seekers and refugees make an overwhelmingly positive contribution to our economy and society.”
Pride Mbi Agbor, aged 34, came to the UK as a student in 2009 but just two weeks later his father was killed in inter-community violence in Cameroon.
After finally being granted five-year refugee status earlier this year, he now goes into schools to talk to children about his experiences and is studying for a degree in biomedical science at the University of Sheffield.
“I have found the city so welcoming,” he said.
“Living the life of a refugee is not easy. But is is very important to talk to people about our situation.
“I want to advocate for refugees who do not have the confidence to speak for themselves.”
To find out more visit www.facebook.com/SheffRights.